For almost as long as there have been superhero comics, there have been acrimonious disputes over how to compensate the creators fairly. Browse the Wikipedia page for Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and lots more, and you’ll find that their creators spent years and sometimes decades in legal tangles with their employers, seeking fair compensation for characters who became household names. The stakes have grown far, far higher in the last few years as superheroes became the lucrative film track in Hollywood. And while Disney can happily tout MCU earnings to shareholders, the people who actually came up with these characters are making what amounts to pocket change.
Case in point, the creators of Yelena Belova, the Black Widow’s kid sister as played by Florence Pugh in the Black Widow movie and the Hawkeye Disney Plus series. According to The Hollywood Reporter, writer Devin Grayson and artist J.G. Jones — who created Yelena for a comic book series in 1999 — believed they had signed a contact guaranteeing them $25,000 each for her appearance in the movie. So they were surprised and shocked when they got just $5,000, “with no explanation.”
As it turns out, the explanation was a convoluted and, according to them, deliberately misleading contract that led them to believe they’d be walking away with far more than it actually promised. THR says the contracts give Marvel a ton of leeway to adjust the amount of compensation as they see fit. And perhaps unsurprisingly, they often “see fit” to lower the payments by thousands of dollars at a time.
As just one, particularly absurd example, Marvel can slash payments to creators if the character in question only appears in a “cameo” — which they classify as taking up less than 15 percent of the runtime. That may not seem too egregious, until you look at some of the specifics. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) played a pivotal role in Captain America: Civil War, but he was only in 22 minutes of the movie — just shy of 15 percent. The same thing happened with Captain America (Chris Evans) himself in Avengers: Infinity War. He was only in a little less than eight minutes of the movie, so he was technically only there as a cameo.
There are lots of other little tricks the suits can use to whittle away at payments to creators, and most creators have NDAs that keep them from being able to speak up about their treatment. But a writer named Joe Casey — the guy who created America Chavez, who made her MCU debut in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — isn’t one of them. He signed no contract, which means he hasn’t seen a penny of the movie’s $957 million haul, but he is able to speak out. “Maybe $5,000 means something to some kid in his early 20s that doesn’t have a career,” Casey told THR. “For a lot of us who have been in the business for decades, it comes off as an insult.”